Lockdown

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(The following is a true story…)

The teacher thought this was a drill, but it wasn’t.

The P.A. blared out: “Stay in the classroom, and lock the doors. This is not a drill.”

Caught in the Computer Lab with a class of thirty high school students. They have no food, no drinks, and they will stay here from 10 am to 3:30 pm. Five and a half hours of hell, and the sound of a circling helicopter above them. Streets outside are closed up, and the hallways are crawling with the swat team.

The first couple of hours the only information known is a man is on campus with a gun. Only later the details will be learned from a computer in the library—A group of boys had a confrontation across the street, and it spilled out over to the campus. To the upper level senior parking lot. One of the teenage boys is spotted with a gun, and a call to the police was made.

Ushered by a security guard through a supply room and into the stacks of the library, the teacher instructs his students, “No talking, no talking!” The class stays quiet because to hear students inside might prompt a gunman to rush the room. This is how the drill goes, and this is real now, so the rules are followed. Keep them quiet; keep them calm. Bored students empty the shelves, and use the stacks to lie down for hours of just waiting. No need for books; this is their education for the day.

Stay away from the windows and doors in case they rush into the room with bullets flying. This is what the teachers have been taught; this is what the students are told.

One student after three hours passes out after an epileptic seizure. They call the office and several members of the swat team come in, using their walkie-talkies to call for an ambulance. “I have to go with her; she’s my student.” The teacher is told to stay there, and it’s the one time during this entire siege when his eyes fill with tears, “That’s my student—I’m responsible for her.”

There are no bathrooms in the library. There are 100 students and five teachers. The boys can use a wastepaper basket, but for the girls? One of the women teachers puts on music so people won’t hear as the girls use another wastepaper basket. Other students use Ziploc bags.

Kids are seated at tables with their arms behind their heads as swat team members come in and question them. There’s a special ed student who always looks slack-jawed because he’s on meds. The police take notice of him and start to question him. They don’t like his answers, and start to take him away, “He’s special ed,” the teacher tells them. “He’s on meds.” They take him away anyway.

Three boys appear at the door immediately after the lockdown—they have been left outside in the hallway, and say they weren’t in class because their teacher let them out early. Do you let them in, or keep them outside? What decision do you make as a teacher? It’s your judgment, and yours only. Bring them into the safety of the classroom, or leave them outside to fend for themselves. Not knowing if they are innocent or not, whether leaving them outside condemns them, or brings them inside to condemn the others.

One of the girl students is pregnant and needs water. The boy who sits next to her in class is the father—The teacher didn’t even know they were dating. Not until today.

There is one bottle of water rationed among the students — kids drink from little cups, several students to a cup. This after an early morning faculty meeting about the importance of cleanliness and the swine flu pandemic.

One student asks in a hushed and timid voice, “If they rush in here, will you die for us?”

They don’t tell you how to answer something like this when you’re student teaching. But this is what it means to be a teacher now. These are the questions you somehow must answer.

This is part of the job.

Paradise Lost

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The houses are still ringed by Christmas lights.

And we’re two weeks into January.

It’s past Christmas – beyond the promise of the new year or the first sweet bite of King’s Cake. But we can’t let go of wanting to feel good again. To feel joy. To feel hope. To feel safe. To be in control of our lives.

Each day we awaken and say to ourselves, “Today will be a better day.” The fear is behind us, we tell each other. Now, we can get on with our lives. We share stories, while we still wipe the grit from our eyes and cough. We sweep the driveways and water down the gardens.

Still wearing our masks.

And we pray for rain.

The fire isn’t out yet, but it’s moved further away. Only the ash is still here – threatening us in unseen ways.

We come down with colds and fill the ER with our flus and bronchitis.

We flip the switches and look to the Christmas lights to make ourselves feel better.

We try not to think of the fire that threatened us, that stopped our lives and put us in this post-apocalyptic daze.

Quickly, it had started – blown alive by some monster wind.

All we could do was watch from a distance as it devoured our neighbor’s lives – all the homes and businesses – scorching the earth south of us. We shook our heads at the disbelief of the quickness of the devastation. At how fast that fire hungrily took home after home while sparing others equally there in its path. We crossed ourselves and said our prayers that it hadn’t happened above us – in our own mountains that watch over our towns.

Carpinteria. Summerland. Montecito. Santa Barbara. Goleta.

We felt we had been spared.

Until the smoke came.

The wind had changed and blown harder, pushing that fire – dancing the flames across the land as it remembered us from the scorched history of our past.

Jesusita. Gap. Coyote. Zaca Mesa. Whittier. Painted Cave.

So many flames, some with names no longer remembered. Each one we battled and fled from in terror. This one threatened to be even bigger as it turned directions and now headed our way.

We watched it move closer – speeding towards us. We hunkered down with our masks, packed up our cars, and took flight while the wind and the flames swirled around us.

The firefighters, always the heroes, stayed in our place. Fought the good fight. And when the winds took pity on us and slowed, the heroes pushed the fire away from us, from the towns laying so vulnerable there in the path to the ocean that the fire so desired.

The battle was won.

We took a deep breath and returned. Spent from running away, with pets and belongings, exhausted from calming frightened children that were crowded into cars; with our lives in suitcases and boxes, we came back to our homes. We had stayed with relatives. Moved to hotels. Bunkered down with friends. We had slept in shelters. We had gotten out. And now, coming back, we tried to reach for normal again. We celebrated the holidays with our sore throats and air purifiers humming in the background.

And we kept those Christmas lights still burning on our homes.

While the fire burned too – higher above us now – in the forest beyond the crest.

We bowed our heads and prayed for rain.

“We need rain!” “Hope it rains before the next winds!” said the Facebook posts in all of our Timelines. “Please, God, let the rains finally come and end the fire!” We cursed the drought and the winds and we knew the answer to finding normal again would be in the winter rains.

Long overdue.

And when we heard they were coming it raised us up with hope.

For a moment.

Until we heard caution in voices that were meant to calm, warning us, telling us to beware.

Fear takes a toll on you when life is full of uncertainty. And your fate is tied to the fickleness of the wind. Quickly, hope can change, and you’re not ready for it.

Within a day there were knocks on our doors again, the cell phone texts awakened us in the thick of night: “Evacuate! Evacuate!”

None of it seemed real.

A mist had started to fall on us that day – so soft and fine – sweetening the air again. All day it had misted – merely a drizzle. Nothing to fear. We welcomed it.

But the messages blared from the tv and social media: “Get out!” “Make plans to get out!”

It didn’t ring true. It didn’t seem possible. With so much beauty returning to our world – the sun was out and the air was just starting to fill with the scent of normal again. We had taken off our masks, unpacked the cars, settled down the children and the pets, and started to live the routine of our lives again. We had our world back once more – a world filled with beauty, an enchanted forest that kept us there, privileged to walk and live within it.

It’s easy to overlook Paradise sometimes. To take it for granted. With bills and work and worries filling our heads and clouding our eyes. But the fire had reminded us. We had been threatened and humbled by the threat, but now it was gone, and the rain, so gently falling, would finally put an end to that threat. We would be free to live in Paradise once again, knowing just how lucky we all were to be there.

To have survived.

So when they warned us and told us to be ready, it didn’t make sense. Our heads were still filled with that post-apocalyptic daze. It was hard to chase it away – the malaise wrapped around us, slowed us down, took away the swiftness of our feet, silenced our questioning. Our lives had been unpacked and safely tucked away. How could they tell us now to get out?

The rain was not the fire.

We couldn’t fear it. We couldn’t see it like the flames in the distance, or sniff its destruction in the air. We couldn’t taste the smoke as it choked us. We couldn’t see the danger. There was only the soft touch of a drizzle. A rain so gentle it only comforted us. The rain was here and it would save us. And save our Paradise too.

We were too tired, too spent to listen, to pack up again, to run away.

And so we stayed.

Not knowing the apocalypse we thought we had survived was only yet to come.

And our reclaimed Paradise would soon be lost.

(Our family is safe, but others have paid the ultimate price simply for living where we live.  If you’d like to help victims of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudlside here is a list of organizations who you can contact:  Disaster Relief Organizations

 

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An American Latte

Old typewriter

“Hi! Can I take your order?!”

The barista was young – with more spring in his voice than ever was in my step. I really doubted that he shaved. Or even knew how.

“I’ll have a decaf latte,” I placed my order.

And then, feeling brave.

“Double shot of vanilla,” I added. And not the sugar-free.

“And your name?” he asked, poising the black marker at the top of the paper cup.

“Darlene,” I said, and then quickly added, not willing to risk another “Darling” scribbled on my order. “D-A-R…”

“I know that name!” he said proudly. And then, finished spelling it aloud as I did, “…L…E…N…E.”

Maybe he did know how to shave.

He took my stare of amazement as a challenge and explained.

“I have a cousin named Darlene,” he told me, with a victorious smile. “She’s 65.”

65? Really?! Who dragged age into this conversation? Of course, my grey hair sneaking out the sides of my son’s old baseball cap might have been a hint or two. Do I politely nod and let the subject drop? Not willing to “date” myself? Or do I keep the ball rolling, possibly revealing my own age?

Gulp.

Aw hell, I took the plunge.

“Your cousin’s probably named after “Darlene” from the Mickey Mouse Club. A lot of us with that name were named after her. So when you see a “Darlene,” we’re usually from around that same period of time.”

“It’s such a great name!!!” he said, scrawling the name on my cup.

I smiled. It wasn’t so bad admitting my age range. I mean, I’m sure he could tell I wasn’t twenty. Even though I must admit that in my heart I am still twenty, especially when a cute young man (guy? dude?) like this takes the time to even talk to me. And when they actually look you in the eyes and smile, well, there’s no difference now at 60-something and when I was really twenty. So yeah, I looked him in the eyes and I smiled my most fetching smile.

“I really love that name of “Darlene,” he murmured, softly. “It reminds me of Old America.”

Ohhh – Kay.

I must admit this made me pause.

I wasn’t aware there was an “Old America,” but I guess there is.

And I’m it.

I’m one of the Baby Boomers who was filled with idealism, hope, and promise. There were a lot of us, and we helped stop a war and impeach a President; we spoke out against injustice, worked for diversity and equity, and stepped up, when it was our time, to do our jobs, raise our families, and run the country. We didn’t always find our way; we might have stumbled trying to do so much, but we tried. And we believed that if we worked together – all of us, Americans – we could make anything better.

Old America.

That’s what the barista called it. Called those of us who grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club and the new medium of television, long hair and the belief that love would bring us peace. And he said “Old America” with respect. He said it with longing. He said it like someone sitting on the edge of adulthood, looking back at that time of innocence when all questions were answered. When we felt safe and sure about the future, and we hoped our children and grandchildren felt the same way.  He said it like he missed that Old America.

I know what he means.

I miss it too.

The Sweetest Avocados Aren’t For Sale

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I’m not a saint.

I’m a wife and a mom, and I hate to admit I’m anything less than Mother Teresa, but yeah, self-sacrificing, stoic, patient, and charitable are not me.  I’m also a writer and maybe that’s the problem.  At our best, writers are anti-social. That’s us sitting in the farthest corner of a room at any kind of gathering that has more than one person. At our worst, we’re just downright cranky as hell.  J.D. Salinger used to lock himself away from his family while he wrote in a bunker. Only someone who isn’t a writer is shocked to hear that.  I, on the other hand, understand completely and wonder if our backyard is big enough to accommodate one.

I love my family, but I also love putting words to paper, and sometimes those two worlds collide. While I do the mandatory labor – cooking, cleaning, and laundry, I do it at the barest minimum.  I’m content being the C- student, unless we’re having company over and then, like an undergrad illicitly buying a Moby Dick essay online, I pay someone to do the cleaning for me. And as for taking care of everyone’s needs:  I nurture when it’s needed, and I hope to God it’s not needed for long.

Unfortunately, a hip operation and rehab takes months.

That’s what my dear husband went through in December, and as we are approaching February, he’s still on the mend. He’s graduated from physical therapy in the home to three days a week every week at a physical rehab center. So in addition to all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, picking up of groceries (which is a real challenge for a recovering agoraphobic terrified of Albertsons), and doctor appointments, I now have to be a chauffeur to and from physical therapy.  The only writing that’s getting done  by me are To Do lists.

Yes, I know – My dear husband is the one who is going through all of the pain from the operation and the hard work involved in getting better. I’m just the wife and caregiver. But you know how marathoners talk about “hitting the wall” at mile 20.  I hit the wall yesterday.

We had rehab yesterday and also a doctor’s appointment. That meant one hour at one location waiting in the car, and another hour at another location waiting. That was after a morning of doing my version of grocery shopping:  Quickly running into Albertson’s (at daybreak when no one is there) to grab the first eight items I saw, and then, rushing to the checkout (to avoid a panic attack), and out to the car where I then drove to Walgreens to pick up paper towels, toilet paper, milk, and cereal, before going to a little butcher shop to buy meat for the week.  Small stores and short errands are the only way I can manage grocery shopping on my own, so yep, I was ready for a nap by 1 pm.

Which is exactly the hour when we had to drive to physical therapy.

I had just enough time to pack up my iPad, research books, and work-in-progress pages before driving to the mall (taking side streets since I still don’t drive freeways) and dropping off my husband at the physical therapy place at the mall.  I had every intention of attempting an hour of responsibility-free writing, with the hope that I wasn’t too tired to nod off mid-sentence. What I needed was a strong hot cup of tea for vitality, and with that in mind, I put the car in reverse, and drove off for the exit of the mall and the closest Coffee Bean & Tea.

That’s when I saw her.

What I noticed first was the mechanized wheelchair, and the fact that it was just sitting there in the middle of the road.  Then, I noticed the plastic bags filled with God-knows-what that had fallen off of her lap and onto the ground at her feet.  I couldn’t tell how old the woman was – only that she was bending over and trying to gather up her bags, and she wasn’t having much luck at all.  She’d grab one bag, and another bag would fall, and she’d start the process all over again.  All the time while just sitting there in the middle of the road right in front of the exit of the mall.  Cars were whizzing by her, and really, I ask you:  How could I not stop?

I didn’t want to stop.  I wanted that cup of tea.  I wanted to write!  I had planned on writing.  I’m a writer – I need to write.  If I don’t write, God help you if you have the misfortune of being around me.  I’m moody.  I sulk. I get angry.  I roar. The last thing in the world I wanted was to encounter a woman in her late 60s (being closer now I could tell this) who was juggling her personal belongings in shopping bags while sitting in a broken down wheelchair.  The exit was just in front of me.  All I had to do was do as the other cars were doing – drive around her.  It would have been so simple.  Just pass her by, and then, I could have my day back.

“Can I help you with something?”

I asked her, after rolling down the window in a momentary lapse of self-survival.

Any decent person might have answered me, “No, I’m fine.  Go do some writing, why don’t you? You look like you might be a writer – a damn fine one too!  Go put those words of yours on paper, not just for you, but for all of mankind.”

But no, this woman didn’t say that to me.  She had the audacity to say, “I think I do need some help.”

Well, now what?

The thing about offering help to someone is that you should have some idea how you can help.  Maybe I was expecting another car to stop, and another citizen to lead the way.  But as far as I could see, everyone else was content to just drive around us.  “Oh look, honey, there’s a woman who needs help in a wheelchair.  We should probably stop and help…Nope, there’s a lady doing that now.  Let’s just go on with our day.  Hey, let’s go get some coffee and write!”

I was in this scene all by myself.

Well, not really. The wheelchair lady was in it too.

But I was clearly the person who needed to start the ball rolling.  So, I did what I was certain I knew how to do best: I parked the car.  After that, I just ad-libbed, going moment by moment.

“So…uh….what’s the problem?

Now, the two of us stood (well, she was sitting) in the middle of the road at the exit of the mall, and I tried not to think that this was how people get run over: by offering to help.  When you don’t help, a Honda can’t hit you.  That’s just a fact.

And then I noticed all of her plastic bags.

They were crammed with empty tupperware.  Call me shallow, but I did not want to lose my life for Tupperware.  I needed to speed this encounter along.

“Where do you live?  Can I take you home?”

She looked at me.

“I don’t even know you…How can I trust you?”

Well, that makes two of us, lady.

This woman with hair that hasn’t been combed in weeks, wearing not a blush of make-up (God forbid), dressed in ancient peddle-pushers, a stained sweat shirt, and old Keds is asking me a question I should be asking her.  It’s a good question.  It’s the perfect question to be asking at the moment.  But why is it the woman who looks like a bag lady is the one asking it of the woman who looks like a soccer mom from the suburbs?

And how the hell do I prove to her she can trust me?

I pointed to my nine-year-old Camry with the 2008 Hillary bumper sticker.

“That’s my car,” I say proudly.  Meaning what exactly?!  That I voted so I’m trustworthy?!  “With the Hillary sticker!” I add, as if she hasn’t seen it and that my support for a woman candidate only proves my solidarity to sisterhood. So yes, Sister, trust away.

The bag lady looks at me like I’m crazy.

I actually feel a little crazy at the moment.

But clearly, this woman is desperate and decides to take a chance on me.

“I don’t live too far – You can follow me home,” she says and hands me an armful of Tupperware.

Putting her wheelchair in gear, she leads me over to my car – obviously, taking charge because I seem like an idiot. I open my trunk where I deposit her many plastic bags, and she gives me directions to her house, “It’s past the condominiums.”

O-Kay. What condominiums?

“Is there a street name?” I ask.

“Walnut,” she tells me and is about to leave.

“Address, maybe?”

“By the condominiums!”

I’m thinking I better take charge of the adult reins here because she’s about to disappear down Walnut street (a very long street, I might add), and I’ll never see her again, and end up with more Tupperware than I could ever use.

“How about I write down my cell phone number, and I give it to you, and that way if I get lost, you can call me?” I suggest.

This makes perfect sense to me.  But to this woman, not so much.  “Ho-kay,” she tells me with a little laugh, looking at me like I’m a bit desperate for her taste. She just needs to get her Tupperware home, not make a new friend.  Humoring me, she takes my cell number I’ve scribbled on a sheet from a notepad, and when I insist, she reluctantly gives me her address that I write down.

Obviously, this will be the only writing I do today.

Negotiations accomplished, I jump into the car, ready for this new adventure, and put the key in the ignition, turning the engine on.

That’s when there is a tap at my back window.

“Your trunk is still open,” she tells me.

And I can see in her eyes that my stupidity has now won her trust.

By the time I’m out of the car, and slamming down the trunk, the woman and her wheelchair are roaring down the road to the mall exit, and crossing the street against the light in the middle of the block.  By the time I get my car in gear and follow her route, I’ve lost sight of her and only praying that I haven’t hallucinated this entire event.

I find Walnut and go block by block looking for the numbers on the street signs, and of course in typical Santa Barbara suburban fashion there are no numbers.  I have almost reached the dead end of the street when my cell phone rings.

“I know. I’m lost,” I tell her without needing to hear her voice.

Of course, she expected this.  We’re old friends by now.

She’s standing on the sidewalk…well, sitting in her wheelchair on the sidewalk, so it’s not that big of a challenge to find her house.  She disappears down a little driveway and I follow tentatively behind her, parking the car.

While I unload the trunk of Tupperware, she heads into her house, and tells me to follow.

It’s an old house, and it probably hasn’t seen a paint brush since the last century.  The front of it is overgrown with bushes and shrubs – a wooden fence holding in the backyard has a couple of broken slats, and a huge tree trying to bust out over it.  There is a small hand-crafted plywood ramp leading up to the open front door, and I hesitate only slightly when I walk up it and enter.

It’s too late to turn back now.

Someone has to carry home the Tupperware.

The lady’s name is Loretta and she lives with her father, Charles.  He looks like he’ll never see 90 again, closer to 100 maybe. He’s in a wheelchair too, and he wears an old faded baseball cap.  He meets me in the oversized living room that looks more like a rumpus room – no carpet, no lights on, and just about everything they own sitting out in the open.  Dishes, pots and pans, half-finished little jobs still hanging around on top of a formica kitchen table, the couch, an armchair, and a kitchen counter with a box of wine as its centerpiece with a Dixie cup poised underneath the spout.

Always at the ready, I guess.

Charles just smiles at me but never talks.

Loretta does, non-stop.

Out of the motorized wheelchair, she hobbles around now,

“I don’t really need that wheelchair – It’s my father’s, not mine.  I hurt my ankle in the garden so it was easier to take the chair to the mall.  I don’t need it.  You like avocados?”

How can I say no?

“I do,” I tell her.

Charles keeps smiling.

Loretta grabs up one of her endless plastic bags that seem to be everywhere, and goes into an enclosed porch, talking non-stop as she gathers up the fruit.

“This is the good stuff, not from the store. Grown here, right off the tree. The best!”

This is the Goleta Valley, and all of this land used to have fruit trees on it.  But the track homes and condos around this old house have replaced the walnut, avocado, and orange trees that once grew here.

“These are for you,” Loretta says, as she hobbles over to me and holds out the plastic Ralph’s bag now filled with six avocados. “One or two of them are ready to eat. You can have them tonight.”

I thanked her as she thanked me.

And as I left that house and was heading back to my car, I could hear Loretta say  to Charles, in a voice loud enough for a man his age to hear her:  “She’s a nice lady!”

It took me a moment to realize she meant me.

I never got a chance to get myself that cup of tea yesterday.  It’s exhausting when you stop your life to help somebody.  So I went back to the car and took a nap.  And you know, of course, I didn’t do any writing at all the rest of the day.  But I made a point to cut open one of those avocados later that night, and slice it up really pretty on a plate.  We ate it for dinner and I thought of Loretta and Charles.

And she was right.

It was the sweetest avocado I’ve ever had.